Four Modern Myths about Ancient Eras
The past was very different.
No one would disagree with that. Even people who know little about the past (think: most modern Americans) understand that the past was different. What they don’t understand is how different things once were.
I don’t even know how to begin describing the differences between the present world and the historical world. Most people think that through history, the main differences were those of ‘bad viewpoints’ – most people believed in slavery, most people were misogynistic, most people condoned torture, etc. Besides this, we project our image of the present onto the past.
But this is certainly not true. While historical viewpoints are blatantly ‘wrong’ by postmodern humanist perspectives, the differences are so much vaster than that. How we think about the world, what we value, how we obtain information, what life was like, and who held influence, are so different today that few can begin to comprehend the way it once was.
Time and again, after reading through history, I put my book down and think – ‘the world of the past is so different, we don’t even begin to understand the differences.’ Most people cannot comprehend how different the world once was, nor will they ever begin to comprehend it. For them, the four myths that follow are an easy way to ignore and discredit the past.
Myth #1 – The ancients were stupid
This belief is so commonplace that I don’t think I need to begin to prove it. We think of the ancients as dumb, we marvel at how little they knew or understood, we don’t believe their accounts, and we discredit their ideas. Except for a few notable ‘geniuses,’ they offer us nothing of value.
Of course, the facts flatly contradict this. The architecture of the ancients still baffles us. How were the pyramids built? The knowledge of the ancient societies seems unimaginable – how were they able to perform calculus on clay tablets, or accurately predict the movements of heavenly bodies? The ideas that they came up with form the foundation of western civilization.
Because we are so convinced that the ancients were stupid, we will do anything to deny the truth. We hypothesize that aliens built the pyramids, or that extraterrestrial creatures were involved. Mostly, we just ignore the facts, refusing to read the history books or visit the museums, because we are too interested in our modern gadgets and TV shows.
Myth #2 – Old ideas aren’t useful
As a culture, we routinely dismiss ideas if they are older. We treat them as less valuable than new ideas. We are prejudiced toward novelty, and biased against antiquity. We don’t read old books (partly because, as a society, we are too dumb to understand them).
Take, for example, the US Constitution. While some people still value this old document, many people (particularly Millennials) feel that it is too old to be a value. So much for the fact that it is the oldest constitution in the world that still holds a nation together (this is viewed as a negative rather than a positive). So much for the fact that it was created by some of the most brilliant political minds.
The spiritual studies and writings of the past are consigned to the same fate. While many people today know practically nothing about the spiritual realm (because they are so focused on the physical realm), they quickly write off the thoughts and ideas of the past about God or the spiritual world as mere ‘superstition.’ Without denying that superstition has always existed, I argue that this is a blatant excuse for moderns to remain ‘blissfully ignorant’ of what they know nothing of – and to feel proud about their ignorance.
Myth #3 – The past was just filled with war and violence
One of the easiest ways to discount the past is to view it as nothing more than a gory bloodfest. Angry hordes of barbarians are constantly at war, while power-hungry kings expand their empires at great human cost. Today, of course, we are far more ‘refined.’ (Haven’t we been evolving from apes, to ape-like ancients, to ‘civilized’ humans, anyhow?)
I won’t deny that the story of history is a story of incredible human suffering and bloodshed. By the way, if you read about the modern world outside the cozy confines of the first world, you will see a remarkably bloody story as well. We just don’t like to talk about the massive wars that occur in other parts of the world (it is more entertaining, and less uncomfortable, to give that newspaper headline to the Grammys or Hollywood).
With that said, history is so much more than a record of war and violence. It contains the chronicles of great genius, great virtue, great heroism, and great bravery. Many of the characters of the past put moderns to shame. We think they were rude and ignorant, but many of them lived and acted by the principles of virtue and honor, to an extent we cannot understand.
By the way, while we condemn the ancient Romans for their heinous gladiatorial games, Americans are daily treated to violent television shows with much more detail than those Romans could see, perched high up in the Colosseum. We view this as normal, yet many historical cultures would not have accepted this level of violence. Who are the real barbarians?
Myth #4 – Television accurately represents history
I’m sure everyone knows that television isn’t an accurate portrayal of history, but somehow we subconsciously accept it. We forget that it is a sensationalized, dramatized, rewritten, edited, politically correct narrative of entertaining aspects of history that have been presented in a simplified form for history-ignorant moderns.
We also forget that many of the ‘historical shows’ are written with an agenda and biases. As a result, many of these shows are nothing more than propaganda. The past is presented in a certain light, not because it is true, but because they want you to believe it is true.
Just remember: history is a fascinating story, but it is not simple. Television tries to smooth it out, but it often wasn’t as simple as it is presented. Sometimes the ‘heroes’ weren’t as good as they appear, and sometimes the ‘bad guys’ weren’t quite as bad. Yes, sometimes they were. But sometimes they weren’t.
If you want to understand history, give it a fresh look. Begin by identifying these myths and how they have colored your own thinking. Then begin to learn, rather than accepting what you are told. Stop being a historically-illiterate modern. Start reading.